Miller-McCune on the Nisbet Climate Report

By Chris Mooney | May 3, 2011 9:07 am

I spoke with Emily Badger last week for her piece on Matthew Nisbet’s controversial “Climate Shift” report, and I think her story came out quite well. The piece explains that the reason this report was so strongly attacked and criticized is not so much because of its actual contents, but because of what it omits or appears to downplay–perhaps most centrally, right wing attacks on climate science. Thus, the issue is the report’s framing–ironically, given that this is what Nisbet studies.

And indeed, my biggest problem with the report didn’t have anything to do with the most contested topic–alleged money differences between enviros and industry. While I’m very skeptical of Nisbet’s analysis on this point, I agree that the cap-and-trade coalition, once it had industry partners like GE and BP, had significant political clout.

Instead, my biggest issue is Nisbet’s un-nuanced depiction of scientists as partisan and ideological. As Badger puts it:

Nisbet cites data from a 2009 Pew survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, suggesting that membership is “strongly ideological, partisan and like-minded in outlook.” Fifty-two percent of AAAS members surveyed identified themselves as liberal or very liberal, with only 9 percent describing their political views as conservative. But Mooney says that data hardly suggests that scientists — generally timid about political engagement — behave like raging ideologues in the climate debate.

“Within that community, introspection is already happening,” Mooney said. “I know it’s happening, I know there’s huge receptivity to asking things like ‘Do scientists understand the public?’ Is this report that Nisbet did going to prompt more of that or is it going to promote defensiveness? I would guess, it depends on whom, but that it would prompt defensiveness in a lot of people. Again, it says ‘you’re partisan and you’re ideological’ — which, technically, everybody is, and his data shows that they are, but it’s going to be taken in the wrong way.”

Yes. Scientists are liberal just as academics are liberal. Big surprise there. That doesn’t mean they’re not experts, can’t be dispassionate, shouldn’t be heeded, etc.


Comments (31)

  1. Chris,

    Nowhere does the chapter suggest that scientists shouldn’t be heeded, aren’t experts in their fields, can’t be dispassionate when engaging in scientific research etc. All of these things are true and science is the best institution we have at achieving these goals through training and norms.

    As the Miller-McCune article discusses, the point of the chapter is that just like the general public relies on their ideology and selective information sources to make sense of the complexities of climate change as a physical phenomena, scientists as a community engage in a similar process in making sense of the complexities of climate change politics.

    As the chapter in the report addresses, why is it that we tend to focus almost exclusively on the role of conservatives, Climategate, and Fox News as drivers of the decline in public concern since 2007, yet tend to overlook other factors such as the economy, the policy dependent nature of public perceptions of climate science, and the polarizing qualities of admired political leaders such as Gore?

    Our own political identity combined by the congenial narratives told by commentators and political leaders are two major reasons. As the chapter makes clear, in comparison to other social groups in society, we are an incredibly like-minded bunch politically. Training as a scientist and the norms of science as an institution do not correct for how scientists as a community make sense of political and social phenomena.

    To make progress on climate change, we need to recognize our own perceptual filters and biases in order to have a better sense of how to engage with the public and where to go collectively from here. That is the essential point in the chapter.

    Your reaction and those from a few other bloggers reflects just how strong these perceptual filters might be, especially when you have invested so heavily professionally and financially in focusing scientists on just a few narratives at the expense of understanding a broader range of factors limiting societal action on climate change.

  2. Chris Mooney

    everybody’s biased but you, matt. how do you manage?

  3. Matt asks: “why is it that we tend to focus almost exclusively on the role of conservatives, Climategate, and Fox News as drivers of the decline in public concern since 2007, yet tend to overlook other factors such as the economy, the policy dependent nature of public perceptions of climate science, and the polarizing qualities of admired political leaders such as Gore?”

    Only someone who hasn’t been paying attention to the conversation among climate change activists would dare to ask such a silly question. They’ve been doing almost nothing but analysing those very factors he suggests have been ignored. Yes, we all worry about Fox News and conservative bloggers, but not to the exclusive of other factors. Quite the opposite.

  4. Chris Mooney

    Tim Lambert was also probably biased when he redid your media analysis and found different results

  5. Chris Mooney

    @4 James I agree and I have been focusing almost all of my attention lately on “the policy dependent nature of public perceptions of climate science.” But we’re all biased!

  6. TTT

    We will be in the next ice age before Nisbet gives an on-point response to any of his critics.

  7. Chris,

    The Lambert “re-analysis” misses the point of doing quantitative content analysis which is to control for the subjective bias of the researcher or the judgments of a single reader. For a discussion of the methodology used, see the report.

    This is a standard procedure used in the social sciences designed to eliminate relying on the subjective judgments of a single reader i.e. Lambert reading through articles and arriving at his own subjective conclusions and ratings, perceptions colored by his strong commitment to a belief in false balance. This replicates methods used by Boykoff, is a well-established procedure used in statistical analysis of media trends as well as for example open-ended responses in experiments, and one I have used in several previously published studies.

    Moreover, the results are directly consistent with the findings of Boykoff’s 2007 analysis, as discussed in the chapter.

  8. Yeah, Lambert is about as unbiased as Joe Romm.

    Please, Chris. Step out of your echo chamber.

  9. Bobito

    @4 but not to the exclusive of other factors

    Are there any “other factors” that you have identified as valid complaints against the pro AGW side? Or is anything that seems to poke a hole in any part of the pro AWG argument just made up by conservative bloggers, fox news, and corporate sponsored think tanks?

    Is it not true that Climate Gate uncovered some questionable methods?
    Is it not true that Al Gore has been shown to exaggerative and/or twist facts?

    Many people agree that the IPCC has some issues, Al Gore is in it for personal and political gain, Fox News cherry picks facts, and Glenn Beck has no idea what he is talking about. If you only agree with 2 of those statements, you are probably blinded by ideology and not thinking objectively.


    Ah, deleted a comment, I see!

  11. Bobito asks:

    Is it not true that Climate Gate uncovered some questionable methods?

    No it isn’t. How many exonerations do you need?

    Is it not true that Al Gore has been shown to exaggerative and/or twist facts?

    No it isn’t. Any of the inadvertant errors he has made he has quickly amended.

    As for the four statements we’re asked to think about:

    1. Many people agree that the IPCC has some issues — but nothing worth worrying about when it comes to the science of climatology.

    2. Al Gore is in it for personal and political gain — evidence please. Oh I forgot. You don’t have any.

    3. Fox News cherry picks facts and 4. Glenn Beck has no idea what he is talking about — this is supposed to balance the other two? I think we just proved our point about false equivalency.

  12. tonylurker

    @ 10 “Yeah, Lambert is about as unbiased as Joe Romm.”

    Yes, if by biased you mean wanting people to be factually correct. . .

    But, oh no, his tone! his tone! While I know you disagree, There are those who think that being factually correct is more important than having a polite tone.

  13. david roberts

    I often find that other people’s perceptual filters prevent them from realizing that I’m correct. It’s a burden to bear.

  14. Chris Mooney

    @12 deleted a comment, and also about to ban someone. you. you’ve been warned.

  15. Nullius in Verba

    “How many exonerations do you need?”

    Actually, just one would do, so long as by “exoneration” you mean an honest investigation that actually presented evidence to show that the Climategate documents didn’t mean what they obviously meant. We require more than empty assertions; we require explanations. I always enjoy it when people are this deeply in denial, though – there’s lots of fun to be had as they tie themselves up in knots trying to defend the indefensible.

    “Many people agree that the IPCC has some issues — but nothing worth worrying about when it comes to the science of climatology.”

    The IPCC report contains many vague statements of “high confidence” that are not supported sufficiently in the literature, not put into perspective, or are difficult to refute. It is not appropriate to assign probabilities to such statements.

    The IPCC’s guidance for addressing uncertainties in the Fourth Assessment Report urge authors to consider the amount of evidence and level of agreement about all conclusions and to apply subjective probabilities of confidence to conclusions when there was “high agreement, much evidence.” However, such guidance was not always followed, as exemplified by the many statements in the Working Group II Summary for Policy Makers that are assigned high confidence, but are based on little evidence.

    I personally do think it is worth worrying about if advice contributing to policy at this level is stated by scientists to have “high confidence” when they don’t actually have any evidence at all for it. Why do you think it isn’t?

  16. Chris Mooney

    @13 In fairness, An Inconvenient Truth definitely made more hay out of hurricanes than was scientifically warranted. Including the whole cover poster thing.

  17. Nullius in Verba


    You may also be interested in the court case. It’s generally regarded by sceptics as only a subset, limited to those they had the time to make the legal case for. And conversely of course you don’t settle scientific issues in a court of law. Take it as you will.

  18. Chris, In retrospect, sure. But at the time, coming on the heels of Kerry Emanuel’s 2005 study, it was pretty much bang on. The science has evolved and Gore’s presentations have also evolved accordingly. The difference between Gore and deniers is that Gore understands that things change and is willing to accommodate new discoveries.

  19. Nullius in Verba


    Did Kerry Emanuel’s study really imply that weather was climate? That sounds a bit controversial for a climate scientist.

    And could you tell me where Al Gore’s errata for the film is listed? It will be interesting to see if his list is the same as ours.

  20. Bobito

    @20 The difference between Gore and deniers

    The difference is in your perspective. Both Gore and the hard core deniers move the goal posts as the science becomes more settled. You are just claiming this as a honorable trait in Gore because you agree with him ideologically. I have no doubt you would jump on the opportunity to attack the other side should a similar “thing change” with something they reported.

    You really think Gore is in this for no other reason than the health of the planet? His significant investments in carbon trading have nothing to do with it? I understand if you do, but it’s really no different than saying “Bush invaded Iraq for not other reason than to combat terrorism.” And “His ties to the oil industry had nothing to do with it.”

    The real inconvenient truth is that our politicians lie to us ALL THE TIME! If you think the other side are the only ones guilty of it you are blind…

  21. John Kotcher

    “everybody’s biased but you, matt. how do you manage?”

    Chris, your criticisms of Nisbet seem to be getting progressively more sophomoric and less focused on a respectful discussion. Based on your quotes in the Miller-McCune article, you seem to agree with Matt’s basic arguments that scientists could benefit from more introspection and that everyone, even scientists, are vulnerable to partisanship and ideology but that because of the way he framed it people are going to get defensive and tune out the broader argument.

    I think you’ve developed a not insignificant amount of authority within the scientific community on these issues given your role in helping to translate some of the social science of science communication over the years. Given that fact that you seem to share many goals with Matt on the basics but seem to have a problem with the way he’s presented it, one would think it’d be more constructive to help those members of your audience that you think will be turned off by the framing to not get so defensive over the report’s presentation and give the parts of it that you think are important a thoughtful read.

    I think a lot of scholars in science communication and science and technology studies (including Nisbet) were generally happy and gave positive reviews when you brought attention to their research in this area with your “Do Scientists Understand the Public?” essay. But as Matt and Sheila Jasanoff both pointed out in the blog post linked below, it took several decades for those insights to reach the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The release of that report was certainly a good day for the communication of these disciplines to the wider scientific community, but by no means can one report create a paradigm shift among scientists. It’s going to be a long-term process. Rather than spending your time attacking one of your former collaborators on these issues simply because you think he framed it poorly, you might do more good to act as cool-headed mediator to help these two communities learn from one another.

  22. Chris Mooney

    John @23–
    i suspect you would agree that my “do scientists understand the public” essay and this “climate shift” report are very different animals, and framing is much of the reason. Both of us chose our own way of communicating some of these themes to scientists, and the reception can be compared. Isn’t the difference rather apparent?

  23. Aiser

    “Do scientist understand the public?”


    The average scientist understands the telescope and microscope much more then he/she understands their own neighbor.

  24. Matt, it is disappointing that you chose to use an ad hominem argument rather trying to find out why your results differed from mine. It may be that we have different notions of what constitutes false balance in reporting, but that surley is of interest to folks interested in the issue — seeing some of the articles that we classified differently would help everybody decide whether there was significant false balance there.

    Boykoff (2007) covered a different set of years, so while it is consistent with your results, it’s also consistent with my results.

    You say that you “control for the subjective bias of the researcher or the judgments of a single reader”, but all you did was have three students classify articles and test their agreement on a set of 45 articles. Their agreement on those articles was just 72%. But the agreement between my classification and yours could be as much as 83%.

    How about you provide a list of the WaPo articles you classified so we can sort this out?

  25. John Kotcher



    I wasn’t making a comparison between your essay and Nisbet’s report, but rather pointing out that, based on your past work, you seem to be sympathetic to the basic ideas coming from science communication and STS scholarship and how they could improve scientists’ relationship with society. Paired with your ability to reach an audience of scientists that I think sci-comm and STS researchers often have trouble reaching, you have a significant opportunity to help translate the findings from these disciplines in a constructive way. The fact that you reflexively dismissed Nisbet’s report rather than helping to provide context and shed light on the some of the important findings seems rather erratic and bizarre. I seem to remember that when “Do Scientists Understand the Public” was released, Nisbet respectfully criticized the way that you framed the introduction, yet still recommended it as a worthy read.

    Your essay and Nisbet’s report are absolutely apples and oranges, but I don’t think it’s about framing–the content is different. Your essay was about how well scientists understand the public, but if you were to do a similar essay on the research you’ve focused on in Nisbet’s report (i.e. the partisanship of scientists) the essay might be more appropriately titled, “Do Scientists Understand Themselves?” (i.e. how worldviews and values color the way that they, like every human being, make sense of politics, even politics as it relates to science)

    That ideology and political identity can bias that outcomes of science and the expert advice they provide to policymakers is well documented in the STS and science and technology policy literature. It is not a simple “duh” concept that everyone seems to already appreciate as evidenced by this recent response by STS and STP scholars to Bruce Albert’s editorial in Science about the financial crisis and the ability of scientists to be “non-ideological”.

  26. Chris Mooney

    The basic ideas coming from science communication and STS are one reason for my awareness that “Climate Shift” report, due to how it is framed, is likely to lead to a) defensive reactions from scientists, not introspection; 2) attacks on them from outside. Is this “reflexive dismissal” on my part?

  27. Chris (28),

    Interesting. So you’re saying that the way the Nisbet report was framed is likely responsible for the “defensive reaction from scientists…” and for the “attacks on them [scientists] from the outside.”

    Does this mean that you are otherwise in agreement or receptive to the report’s main findings? They just should have been “framed” differently?

    As for you not exhibiting “reflexive dismissal” of the report, can you point to one (or any) of your prior posts on the Nisbet report that indicated as much? Cause it sure looks to me like you were throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  28. Chris Mooney

    Yes, Keith, of course that’s what it looks like to you, because of my framing, and your biases.

  29. TTT

    If Nisbet hadn’t “framed” his report with gross mathematical errors about environmentalist lobbying and influence capacity, plus the intellectual laziness to declare that since he didn’t include oppositional messaging in his report it must not matter, of course it would have been received differently.

    And if my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.

    As I pointed out to another Nisbet defender on another board (who was just as apathetic about the concept of basic fact-checking as those here have proven to be), you cannot reach common ground by backpedaling. He blew the story–“communicate” that.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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